Peace force stymied by Congo insurgency

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UNITED NATIONS | U.N. peacekeepers are spread too thinly through eastern Congo to protect civilians or quell the fighting between rebel and government forces, U.N. officials warned Thursday.

The assessment came while thousands of Congolese took advantage of a fragile day-old cease-fire to flee the regional capital of Goma in eastern Congo.

The U.N. Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or MONUC, is the largest U.N. peacekeeping mission, with more than 17,000 troops posted at duty stations throughout the vast jungle-carpeted country.

“We are looking at a MONUC at the absolute limit of its capacity,” said U.N. spokesman Kevin Kennedy. “It cannot be everywhere. It cannot respond to every incident.”

Nine civilians were killed Wednesday evening by drunken soldiers — described by locals as wearing army uniforms while looting in Goma, U.N. radio reported.

In addition, tens of thousands of people were fleeing the city Thursday, clogging roads and making it difficult for U.N. soldiers to move around. Fighting also limited the presence of relief groups, contributing to the humanitarian crisis.

“We want peace for people in the region,” rebel leader Laurent Nkunda told the Associated Press by telephone after halting his advance on Goma and calling the cease-fire.

Mr. Nkunda began his insurgency three years ago, charging that ethnic Tutsis were excluded during Congo’s transition to democracy. He resumed fighting in August in defiance of a U.N.-brokered truce and his troops this week drove to the outskirts of Goma.

Frustration with the limits of the U.N. forces has led to popular demonstrations against the peacekeepers, one of whom was seriously injured.

Mr. Kennedy acknowledged Thursday that MONUC was unable to meet the “very high expectations” of the Congolese people.

“There have been a number of instances where the perception of the population is that MONUC had not done enough” to counter rebels or government offensives and “consequently MONUC was seen as the one at fault.”

The senior U.N. official in Kinshasa, Alan Doss, asked the Security Council earlier this month to temporarily authorize at least two more battalions, two more police units, two companies of special forces as well as air, engineering and intelligence gathering assets for the Goma area.

Corrected paragraph: Combatants have changed over the years and so have their targets. Many continue to fight along Hutu and Tutsi ethnic lines, an extension of hostilities that erupted into the Rwanda genocide of 1994. Other groups are warring over access to precious minerals and timber.

Mr. Nkunda is often accused of being tied to the Tutsi-led Rwandan government.

But U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer, who arrived in the Congolese capital Thursday, has said there is no evidence that Mr. Nkunda’s forces are backed by Rwanda.

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